About this day in 1937 the British writer Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) wrote the following lines:
Two days before Christmas we climbed the dizzy barren razorback of Pantocratoras to the monastery from which the whole strait lay bare, lazy and dancing in the cold haze. Lines of dazzling water crept out from Butrinto and southward, like a beetle on a plate, the Italian steamer jogged its six knots towards Ithaca. Clouds were massing over Albania, but the flat lands of Epirus were frosty bright. In the little cell of the warden monk, whose windows gave directly upon the distant sea, and the vague rulings of waves to the east, we sat at a deal table and accepted the most royal of hospitalities – fresh mountain walnuts and pure water from the highest spring; water that had been carried up on the backs of women in stone jars for several hundred fee.
Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell. A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra, Faber And Faber, London 1978, p. 97.
“Drepani” – sickle – is one of the oldest recorded names for Corfu. “Korkyra” is how the Corinthian settlers in 734 B.C. baptised the island, probably after a mythological nymph (although the word also meant something lik “tail”). “Korkyra” of course seems to echo in modern Greek: “Kerkyra”. “A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava”, was the rather romantic observation by Lawrence Durrell in the first lines of his Prosperos’s Cell (1945). A fact is, if you would look downwards from high altitude the island – sickle – tail – looks like a mere splinter torn off of the massive mountains of Albania and Epirus.
And it’s true the mainland is never far away: no more than two kilometres of sea divide Cape Agios Stefanos in the northeast from the Albanian coastline and a mere eight kilometres Kavos (Cape Koundouris) at the southeastern tip and Sivota in Epirus. With this broader picture in mind it is a small step to see that the 593 km² of Corfu island and the vast mainland were once connected. A dramatic change set in some 10.000 B.C. when ice started to melt and sea levels rose in the Mediterranean.
The western coast of the island more or less follows a fault, and the sea-floor drops rapidly to over 1000 m. The oldest rocks are hard, gray limestones (250–145 million years old), which crop out in the north (Mount Pantokrator, 906 meters). Further south, the rocks are younger and softer and have developed thick, red soils. Paleolithic tools have been found in this soil, dating back to the period that the fertile island was in fact an outer region of the mainland.
Cave Grava Gardiki Tools made of flint, bones of boar and deer and other objects were unearthed in Cave Grava Gardiki (Halikounas). The cave is to be found in an olive grove at an altitude of 60 metres, near the 13th century Byzantine Fortress in Gardiki. The cave has two entrances, is about 20 meters long and wide and 13 meters high. It is accessible, even for children with adults, but some climbing is involved. For those who know where to look the geological history of the region can be traced in the cave’s inside. Many of the cave finds are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Corfu. They have been dated to the Late Paleolithic Age (between 30.000 and 9.000 B.C.). (Also read my special post about caves!)
From the Neolithic Age (circa 6.000-3.000 B.C.) – after the rising sea levels had turned Corfu into an island – are the finds from the earliest human settlements: near Sidari, and on the small islet Diaplo, just off the northwest coast. While on the coast itself the traces of prehistoric villages were discovered in Aphionas, Kephali and Ermones. Objects of stone, clay and – in the latter stages – copper tell a tale of agricultural communities. Closed societies, trading mainly with tribes on the Epirote coast, to whom they seem to have been related. A relation that dates back to the days before the flood?
75 years ago – almost 76 – in the early hours of November 18th 1943, US pilot Dick Flournoy crash-landed his B-17 bomber plane, on the shore of a sandy marsh near Lefkimi, in the south of Corfu. Immediately after bombing Eleusis Airfield, the key German air base west of Athens, his Flying Fortress had got hit by antiaircraft gunfire. With only one of four engines running he and his nine member crew hoped to reach Brindisi in southern Italy, but fate forced them down to the last Greek island on their route.
The aircraft had stopped just short of a row of trees and none of the crew got injured. Within a few minutes villagers arrived; some climbed aboard and the crew abandoned the plan to set fire to the big bomber, thus denying anything on board to the German occupiers of Corfu. None of the locals spoke English, but some had carried native clothing with them and made it obvious to the crew members to put it on and follow them away from the area of the crash. Soon all the airmen had gone, guided by different people to different hide-outs. When the first Germans arrived on the scene of the crash they found only local inhabitants climbing and searching the plane.
Underground resistance After hiding in individual shelters the crew were guided to different hiding places in the town of Lefkimi, with the efficient help of the underground resistance in the area. Within a week or two most members of the crew got malaria, which they combatted with bloodletting. Just before Christmas the Germans thoroughly searched the town, but the Americans had been forewarned and taken refuge in the hills.
Some days later the very well organised resistance smuggled the ten in olive carts pulled by donkeys through the outskirts of Corfu Town. Later on they went by foot past a German army camp and after many adventures and hazards reached the small fishing village of Kontokali, a few miles north of the town. Two Greek fishermen rowed them in two boats in twelve hours across to the bay of Butrinti in Albania, avoiding almost continual patrols by the German navy.
Ten weeks on the run The group made it under horrific circumstances by foot through the snow-clad mountains of Albania and Epirus to the coast of northern Greece. It was not until March 16th 1944 that they were shipped out to Gallipoli in southern Italy and could consider themselves save and free once more. The common thread of all their conversations “was each person’s admiration for the courage, the cleverness, imagination and vigilant protection given us by the Greeks. No matter the danger or the challenge, they were ready to do whatever was needed to see to it that we survived. Each of us would eternally be indebted to them for that.”
A local friend of mine eyewitnessed that in Lefkimi are still objects to be found from the crashed B-17 and even original clothing of the crew. Perhaps a small museum will be dedicated one day to the extraordinary escape to freedom of the US crew with the remarkable and self-sacrificing aid of the inhabitants of Corfu.
Nowadays a monument of granite and white marble, near the municipality beach of Alikès, commemorates the crash. The text says: “In memory of the event that took place on November 18 1943 during the German Occupation, in which an American B-17 War Plane Bomber with a ten man crew on board crash landed in this area. Local Lefkimmi patriots courageously rescued them, hid them and safely led them into the hands of the allies. Municipality of Lefkimmi.”
I quoted freely from: Philip D. Caine, Aircraft Down!, Evading Capture in WWII Europe, Potomax Books, Washington D.C. 2005, Chapter six, ‘All present and accounted for’, pp. 182-223.